The Choosing Self:
Developing the Meta-Role Functions
Adam Blatner, M.D.

Revised slightly and re-posted May 2, 2006.  (I approach this idea in a slightly different way in a chapter in forthcoming anthology about Advancing Theories of Psychodrama, due out next year from Routledge.) These concepts are also related to ideas on other papers on this website, especially:  Role Dynamics  )

People play many roles, and one special category, different from most of the roles played, is that part of the self that acts as the coordinator of all the other roles, a "choosing self," "inner manager," "self-leader," or, in dramaturgical terms (i.e., working from the view of life as a kind of improvised dramatic play on a stage), an "inner director / playwright."  By naming this role, one brings an implicit function to the fore, and begins to address how well it is operating, apart from the roles. It's a way of stepping back a bit, of helping people to be more self-reflective.

The problem with the meta-role is that it tends to operate like a bit of a bureaucratic manager, just maintaining the same procedures learned many years back. In terms of  Alfred Adler's theory of Individual Psychology, this is the general "style of life," a set of coping mechanism put in place in early-middle childhood, in order to deal with life as it is perceived to be. The problem, though, is that (1) these programs, rules, habits of thinking and feeling, are obsolete, for the most part. Most people grow away from the family of origin, and often even from the sub-culture they grew up in. They learn new skills and are not as vulnerable as they were as children. They don't need those chronic patterns of self-deception and defensiveness.  (See Self-Deception explained in terms of role dynamics.)

Role Dynamics, my systematic development of applied role theory, notes that it is useful to name and consciously develop the various component skills of the meta-role. This is a task that is never completed. It moves towards increasing degrees of creativity, spontaneity, balance, wisdom, responsibility, and competence.

Most people are mediocre in their self-management meta-role function, and often in some areas dysfunctional or incompetent. During the course of therapy or personal development, not only should the issues invovled in a problem be analyzed and an attempt made to solve them, but in a wider sense, the individual should use this occasion to learn the skills involved, in analysis, in problem-solving, and so forth, the better to cope with situations that may crop up in the future!   Thus, while the role conflict may be addressed, the meta-role functions are strengthened.

Functions of the Meta-Role

A number of categories of self-governance are noted below. Doubtless I could add to this list with your feedback. Within these categories, a number of subsidiary component skills could be identified. I suspect more could be thought of, in addition. More important than this taxonomy as a finished product is the general ideas that should be gathered–the sense of the meta-role function as being capable of being developed unendingly, its skill repertoire expanded and refined.

Where id was, so shall ego be.-- Sigmund Freud.
  Let's add to this:
Where unconscious ego functions were, so conscious ego shall be.
Where immature ego was, so mature ego shall be.
Were merely-getting-by competence was, so mastery and wisdom shall be.

The Developed Meta-Self, the inner CEO, fulfills the following role functions:

  1. Connecting with "higher self" through mythmaking, philosophy, imagery, faith, spirituality, thus accessing solace and finding a sense of purpose and direction. This represents a conscious transformation of the superego function towards the ego ideal–a theme to be addressed later on.
  2. Integrating "Wisdom" – a somewhat more "left-brain" orientation of the previous ideas, developing schemas of meaning, and opening to such truisms as acceptance, surrender, will, discrimination, discipline, and the like.
  3. Interpersonal monitoring, to adjust an optimal relationship with one's social network, including such elements as (a) Making boundaries and Ensuring Access; (b) Modulating assertiveness and anger; (c) Developing effective apology skills and working out forgiveness
  4. Deciding clearly, yet with due process. Including all parts of oneself and others, rather than repressing or avoiding them; acknowledging frustrations of regressive illusions and desires, but not letting "them" run one's life. It includes Promoting inner dialogue or effective talking things out with empathy
  5. Remaining alert to the temptations of lower consciousness. This includes learning how to recognize more immature mental maneuvers, thought processes, obsolete beliefs, overgeneralized value judgments
  6. Balancing–Focus of time on past, present, and future; thinking, feeling, imagining, and practical doing (the skills of the "Magus"); Other dualities
  7. Maintaining vitality, through self expression through arts media, drama, poetry, music, etc., Enjoying playful imaginativeness, humor
  8. Political engagement includes consideration of ways (and energizing action towards) promoting new causes, to address social issues, ethical dilemmas, and engaging in discussion. The goal is to catalyze alert discussion, instead of apathy and avoidance
  9. Taking initiative
  10. To give, to expand, to engage life passionately, to maintain balance, etc.
This gives some idea of the kinds of skills the inner director or meta-role needs to learn.

Final Thoughts

Another way to think of this list is that it offers a general orientation as to what is needed to become truly mentally healthy. Health, it should be noted, is not just the absence of illness, but rather, in this case, the exercise of a wide number of activities that positively influence the person's growth, adaptation, resilience, "hardiness."  People use their healthy roles to compensate for and inform their less healthy roles.

Here's another way to say it: The more you become conscious of the fact that you are playing roles, the more you become able to play those roles on purpose, and that means you can bring more creativity to your role playing in life. You can play with the way you play the roles, experimenting with the performances. This enables you to discover which behaviors are more effective, and which behaviors, attitudes, assumptions, etc. are less effective and might be dispensed with.

In Summary, the capacity to reflect on oneself, and the inclination to do so, is called "psychological mindedness." In dramaturgical terms, when people are thinking of themselves as acting in role, and are yet not identified fully with that role performance, that's called role distance. In Role Development, the two descriptions are viewed as being essentially the same dynamic: The meta-role is activated and assesses the functioning of the roles being played.